11. A Question of Balance
All nations have egos. The main issue is whether these are relatively balanced and flexible, or whether they strive to capture, replicate and rigidly preserve an image which is untenably false. Strong leaders are often (consciously or unconsciously) chosen because they symbolically embody a particular aspiration – or an avoidance of a feared possibility – in order to cover a wider malaise or a national incapacity to consensually clarify collective agendas and directions.
By intention or by creep, perpetuation of power begins to override all other issues, regardless of the true national interest. This leads to tough mass experiences: a nation's ego can fight its own people and its own land, propping itself up with all manner of identity-symbols and security-precautions to bolster legitimacy or ensure posterity.
Strong leaders frequently gain power with the support of only a minority. They have nevertheless been permitted to gain support by the acquiescence of the moderate majority who permitted the necessary preconditions for the situation to arise - even if they didn't mean to. When national identity is weak, moderate majorities often fail to form and assert a clear pluralist consensus. Directionlessness in the body politic invites political hijacking by a dictator or populist.
Such leaders create simple political formulae and sell and apply them mercilessly. They eliminate debate and opposition, control the national agenda, build compliant administrations and squads of bribed or favoured lackeys, controlling the military, secret services, the economy and the media. They do so usually by appealing to public fear of disorder, threat, humiliation or poverty. A false reality is adopted nationwide – with a longterm sell-by date and a massive eventual cleanup price-tag.
Figureheads channel collective energy using personal skill, charisma or symbolism to swing the nation in a specific direction. They talk as much to its unconscious as to its conscious – often more to the former. This can be benign, as with leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi. The problem with most strong leaders, however, is that they are nevertheless imperfect, they make mistakes, they usually stay in power too long, they build the nation around them and then they leave a vacuum rarely successfully filled by inheritors or appointees. The sultan-like Nasser-Sadat-Mubarak succession in modern Egypt proved an interesting exception until Mubarak's regime went too far in its paternalism and control. Something in a nation has wanted strong leaders to be there if strong leaders are manifested – even if, deeper down, it is a perverse unconscious wish to learn how to get rid of them.
A strong national leader or ruling order is a sign of inadequacy and emptiness at the heart of the body social and national fabric. This can sometimes be positive, inasmuch as a strong leader can embody valuable values and principles – as long as the public knows that such a strategy is but a temporary one - at an early stage, partially from wisdom and partially from age, Mandela announced that he would stay in office for only one term.
However, all too often the choice of a strong leader means that the nation is avoiding a vital question: why do we exist as a nation or people and what is our true purpose? It is easier to turn to an authority or saviour figure than to take public life into public hands and enter into an exacting transformative process with an unknown outcome. This is a dangerous fact of our times. Before rebelling against any ancien régime we need to look carefully and realistically at what happens after it is overthrown or replaced.
Some leaders set very positive developments in motion. Going back in history, Charlemagne, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 CE, brought to NW Europe a sense of identity after centuries of ignominy, parochialism and insecurity. By establishing a strong courtly life, by sponsoring scholarship, economic development and construction, he gave a sense of posterity and stability to Europe, welcomed even by initially-unwilling subjects. For many people in Europe of that time, anything which gave reliability and security was welcome. However, this was superficial: Charlemagne's empire was carved out by his own prowess, built from top-down rather than bottom-up. It disintegrated after his passing. Public habit could not sustain the standards the emperor had set up.
Napoleon, who very ably hijacked the French Revolution in 1796-99 as it became corrupted by terror and disarray gave the French a sense of purpose, future and posterity. He successfully fulfilled the emperor archetype, engaging in crusading conquests and creating a transformed legal and economic order across Europe – the Napoleonic Continental System. An astute operator and brilliantly charismatic leader, he set a new European agenda which did not die when he was beaten and removed in 1812-15. It survived because he spearheaded a change which was already overdue and well-prepared. He sought to unite Europe yet he nevertheless over-extended himself, as magnificent and ruthless leaders often do. The conservative post-war reaction to the Napoleonic order took things back as far as they could go, reinforcing the continued existence of the nation-states and empires of Europe for 100 years and more. The federalist unification idea now pursued by the EU could have been introduced 150 years earlier.
Kublai Khan over-extended himself too. Not content with mastery of China, he attempted – and fatefully failed – to take Japan. From that moment onwards his magical greatness and imperial impetus was lost, even though it was mainly storms at sea and bad planning which scuppered his plans. But these setbacks demonstrated that his magic as a leader was turning against him.
Mao Tse-tung, in his own rise in the annals of history, saved the Chinese people from a ruthless fate at the hands of the Japanese and Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist Kuomintang, successfully achieving a remarkable revolutionary take-over in an enormous and populous country. He swung things along a new ideological course with a mixture of brilliance and megalomania which led to famine in the late-1950s and virtual civil war in the 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution. His power was so strong that he and his Maoist order could be denounced only after his death.
The alternative to strong leaders is strong pluralistic consensus and social solidarity of a kind which needs no magnate, uniformity or dogma to glue it together. This holds challenges far greater than any other political option – challenges so large that it has not been successfully done. Populations are unaccustomed to exerting sustained power in collective solidarity – though in the last 250 years crowds have successfully developed ways of asserting short-term collective power, mainly through revolutions and short-term movements. This inexperience is such that, historically, collective action has been effectual only in waves. Thereafter chaos breaks out or strong leaders move in. Nevertheless, those waves leave their mark.
In Russia's two opportunities for democracy, in 1917-18 and from 1991 onwards, the availability of political choice spawned a proliferation of parties and interest-groups on both occasions. Often they were based on single-issue, local or uncompromisingly partisan ideas. Public choice was thus overwhelmed with complexity, leading into a democratic morass. Populists out-shouted moderates and unclarity prevailed. The state lurched toward periodic ungovernability, giving strength to strongmen. The Marxist-Leninist notion of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' was invented to deal with this. This dictatorship was to shepherd the people through the immense changes necessary to create Communism, gradually to render itself redundant as the populace took control of their lives. The core issue that was missing in Marxist-Leninism was spiritual transformation. Without it, the dictatorship of the proletariat became a controlling dictatorship of record-breaking proportions.
Stalin and his successors could not rise above the Russian tradition of overbearing centralist autocracy. The Communist Party became monolithic, then sclerotic, then obsolete. However, as in South Africa, the impulse to reform originated from within the ruling party, as if by surprise, through a KGB placeman with a smile and an honest look (and both de Klerk and Gorbachev looked uncannily like brothers). Gorbachev had all of the information and organisational control necessary. His tenure as a national and global truth-speaker was short though momentous. By this means the ruling order attempted to transform itself while it still had a chance, but it was already too late, and the Russian urge to fell its masters overtook the Communist Party as much as the Romanov dynasty it had itself felled.
Strongmen can guard populaces against themselves – a perverse though sometimes necessary thing. This has been Nelson Mandela's predicament. Many nations have fearsome folk-memories of civil war, of crowds in disarray and of horrendous times of social persecution. In the 1990s, Russians accepted president Yeltsin simply because they feared him less than the spectre of social chaos or any other alternative.
Yet in guarding the public against itself such strongmen deprive the masses of experience and learning-opportunities in collective self-determination – however painful. Here, the psyche of a nation has accrued compounded ill-effects from ongoing forms of oppression: a surfeit of suppressed material in the subconscious habitually pushes against a controlling ego and both come to need each other. Unhappy acceptance of top-heavy power over a long period eats away at a nation's capacity to revive.
Governmental legitimacy is a crucial question, worldwide. This has been superficially resolved by giving people a feeling of power without actually giving it to them. It's called democracy. Despite the ascendancy of pluralistic democratic ideals during the late 20th century, electoral democracy does not necessarily give genuine legitimacy to a regime. Voters often stay at home, they vote whimsically, myopically or tactically, they unthinkingly turn against governments they have voted into power, they believe and obey PR spin which they nevertheless know to be untrue, and the issues on which elections are fought are frequently artificial and subsidiary to the real issues at stake.
National business interests make sure that the main issues on which elections are fought are dominated by people's pockets and self-interest. Many governments aren't even supported by a majority of the population – the Thatcher regime of 1980s Britain thrived on 25-35% electoral support. Electoral democracy is not taken seriously, real issues are avoided and electoral promises are quickly revised and forgotten once an election is won. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, an overriding ruling order continues to determine the biggest decisions. Governments are themselves pawns of something else.
It takes leaderships with integrity, with excellence in listening and in plumbing social consensus, to maintain ongoing political legitimacy. Political legitimacy means that the national ego must be approximately in line with its selfhood and its unconscious – it must respect that it depends on them for its survival. Leaderships need both to 'do the right thing' to please their electorate and also to include longer-term overall considerations which more impulsive electorates can selfishly and myopically overlook. This is an almost impossible dilemma in our modern context. A crisis emerges before long, no matter how effective the regime's persuasive or repressive powers might be. The candle-lit mass-encirclement of the STASI secret police headquarters in Leipzig, East Germany, in 1989, demonstrated that legitimacy can evaporate overnight if its time is done. "A week in politics is a very long time", said Margaret Thatcher.
When Mikhael Gorbachev enunciated concepts of restructuring (perestroika) and openness (glasnost), he was addressing the USSR and its situation. Yet he proposed concepts important for the whole world. Gorbachev was elucidating an historic trend to which USSR was responding, a trend toward building publicly-visible power-arrangements. While the West thought this applied only to Russia, Gorbachev's initiative applied to the whole world. Interestingly, the fall of the Soviet state shifted the disease of bureaucratic centralism to the West, a problem that weighed it down within twenty years.
As was the case with socialism in the 1920s, reforms could not really succeed unless they were global – Trotsky's line of argument. The same applied to perestroika. Changes in the West are yet to come – and genuine power-changes in Russia cannot succeed until they do. The outcome for Russia has been reformist half-measures, cruel for many, and the outcome for the West has been a delayed yet underlyingly-potentised movement for reform in the West. The best is yet to come.
Popular revolutions, for a short, intense time, often encourage a ferment of social process and debate, an up-welling of truth which eventually burns out their participants – the release is so sudden and overwhelming. Psychologically, an outburst from the unconscious (the masses) is often unable to integrate itself into a new, stabilised sense of selfhood in time to prevent a replacement selfhood (such as a dictatorial order) from taking over. Things go off the rails, leading to the rapid re-intervention of a new presiding ego-power. Thus revolutions tend to depose old figureheads only to allow new figureheads to rise, to become updated emperors or tsars.
Fundamental transformation takes longer. Only a fundamental psychological shift throughout the population can break old power-patterns and truly create something new. When revolutions are brought about by the mature and the old rather than by the young, they might be more effectual – this would possibly reflect a solid rethink of the process of revolution itself rather than an impulsive new idea which often involves the reinvention of the wheel.
However, revolutions come as outbursts of pent-up energy, and the question faced by many revolutionaries – how to create perpetual, thorough revolution – are given insufficient time to be answered. Yet the change involved in world transformation needs to go much deeper and wider, to dig through level after level of historic disease. So the question arises: how can an ongoing process of irreversible change arise, in order for us to transform the very nature of the civilisation and world we live in?